Friday, June 23, 2017

Boys of Summer

It’s summer in Denver, and not just because the calendar says so. We’ve going through a stretch of several days of 90 degrees-plus, interrupted by the occasional thunder storm. We don’t usually get this kind of weather until July but since climate change is fake science, I’m at a loss to explain what is going on.

Summer also means baseball and this year is a good year to be a fan of the Colorado Rockies, which I have been since they played their first game back in 1993. (Before the Rockies I cheered for the Denver Zephyrs; before that, the Denver Bears.) The weather is perfect for ball games, the home team is as hot as the weather, and the Rox just might weather the endurance test of a major league baseball season.

So I feel like talking (writing) some baseball.

The Rox are in first place (as I write this) in the Western Division of the National League, but only by a game over the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whether they can hang tough and be a contender the entire season is the number one question among many sports fans in the Mile High City. Those of us who have watched the team from the beginning are acutely aware of the history of rare (three) playoff appearances (one World Series visit – where they were swept in four games by the hated Boston Red Sox), and the not-so-rare June swoon of a team that is most famous for breaking fans’ hearts. We’re also nervous about the fact that a primary reason the team has won several games this year is the unlikely success of a squad of rookie pitchers who have defied the odds. How long can that last? When will the wear-and-tear of a major league season catch up to the young arms of the baby pitchers who are way over-achieving? It’s a long season filled with injury, stress, bad luck, and bad umpire calls. Can the Rox survive? (Los Lobos play in the background.)

Another train of thought about baseball – Latino (Latin Americans and U.S. born) ball players excel. Forget the NFL, NBA, NHL, MSL, whatever.  Major League Baseball (MLB) is where it's at for fame and fortune for international athletes.  Every team has several players from different countries such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Mexico, Cuba. A list of current superstars has names like Arenado, González, Altuve, Molina. According to MLB, 29.8% of players were born outside the 50 states, and the majority of them are Latinos. The Dominican Republic has more players in MLB than any other country, leading with 93 players. Venezuela is second with 77 players and Cuba is third with 23 players.

The Rockies have a bevy of talented Latino players including Nolan Arenado, Carlos González, Gerardo Parra, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Alexi Amarista, and Raimel Tapia. In this year’s World Baseball Classic (WBC), Arenado played for the eventual winner of the tournament, the United States (Arenado is from California), while Carlos González (the popular “Cargo”) played for his home country Venezuela. The WBC is watched around the world and the games in the tournament take place on ball fields thousands of miles apart. For example, this year’s first round was played in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Zapopan. The championship game’s venue was Los Angeles. The WBC truly is a world series. The U.S. victory in 2017 marked the first time that a U.S. team won the title. 

Arenado is having a stellar year. He recently hit for the cycle and concluded his historic day with a walk-off home run. I think only six players in the entire existence of major league baseball have done that. He’s one of the stat leaders in RBIs as well as for home runs. And his hot-corner fielding is beautiful, sometimes downright poetic. He ought to be the starting third baseman in this year’s All Star game but, most likely, he won’t start, although he will be voted on the team. The Rox historically get no respect from sports writers, other teams, even fans. Blame it on the altitude.

González has been mired in a slump since he played in the WBC, although he shows signs of breaking out. I believe the Rockies need Cargo at full speed to stay in the pennant race, especially when the pitching falters, as it surely will sometime during the season.

The game of baseball reminds me of many things.

I played on a team when I was a kid, and just like any other American kid who loved the sport (whether that America was in Florence, Colorado or Mexico City, or Santo Domingo), I imagined that I could be a star. It was easy to see myself as a slick-fielding skinny shortstop who hit above average but who banged the big one when the game was on the line. Truth be told: my coach couldn't be convinced that I was an infielder -- more like a catcher with a weak arm but enough smarts about the game to help our pitcher, a freckle-faced white kid who relied on a fast ball that bruised my hand when I caught it, and a curve that could easily hit the umpire in the mask as well as my catcher’s mitt. I wasn’t much of a player but I thoroughly enjoyed myself in those late afternoon and early evening games when the crowds were restless and noisy, the field was dusty and hard, and the opposing team looked like college drop-outs.

My memories of baseball include various Mexican stars who have made a good living in the major leagues. Fernando Valenzuela. Vinny Castilla. Ruben Amaro. Armando Reynoso. Jorge De La Rosa.  To name only a few.

Adrián González is a Mexican American from San Diego, currently playing for the Dodgers and putting up Hall of Fame numbers. I really like to watch this guy play. Smooth, all business.  Although born in the States, he has played for the Mexican team in several WBC tournaments. González and his wife created The Adrian and Betsy Gonzalez Foundation, which is focused on empowering underprivileged youth in areas of athletics, education and health. As one of his charitable endeavors, González paid for the refurbishing of the baseball field in the Tijuana sports complex where he played as a youth.

Martín Dihigo was a Cuban player in baseball's Negro leagues and Latin American leagues (1922-1950) who excelled at several positions, primarily as a pitcher and second baseman. Although he was famous world-wide and was often listed among the best two-way players, he never got the chance to play in the North American Major Leagues. Combining his Dominican, American, Cuban and Mexican statistics results in a lifetime .302 career batting average with 130 home runs (eleven seasons worth of home run totals are missing) and a 252-132 pitching record. After retiring, Dihigo became a radio announcer for the Cuban Winter League. He fled Cuba in 1952 to protest the rise of Fulgencio Batista. Dihigo returned to Cuba when Fidel Castro took power, and was appointed the minister of sports. He taught programs for amateur baseball players that the new government organized. Dihigo is one of two players to be inducted to the American, Cuban and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame, and is also in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela Halls of Fame.

I also think of Roberto Clemente. A few basics: Clemente was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined. Clemente was an All-Star for twelve seasons and fifteen All-Star Games. He was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1966, the NL batting leader in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967, and a Gold Glove winner for twelve consecutive seasons from 1961 through 1972. His batting average was over .300 for thirteen seasons and he had 3,000 major league hits during his career. He also played in two World Series championships. Clemente is the first Latin American and Caribbean player to help win a World Series as a starter (1960), to receive an NL MVP Award (1966), and to receive a World Series MVP Award (1971).  His awesome throws from right field to home plate were famous.  He cut down one foolish runner after another. They learned the hard way not to challenge his arm and accuracy. 

The most important fact about Roberto Clemente? He fully participated in charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the off-seasons, often delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need. On December 31, 1972, he died in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.  He was 38.

Some of the boys of summer turn out to be men for all seasons.

See you at the ballpark.


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in 2016 and is a finalist for the Shamus Award in the Original Paperback category sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America.

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